Caleb Carr – The Alienist (Book Review)

The Alienist cover

Caleb Carr – The Alienist

While police procedurals are a staple of television today, one of the things that makes The Alienist unique is how seriously it takes the mystery. While the investigation progresses unevenly, every step is believable and feels hard-earned. The culprit is a fully realized character long before he actually appears in person, with the clues slowly forming a complete person. This is especially important here, because The Alienist is set in 1896, and is a story about the emergence of psychology as a crime-fighting tool.

Though this is a novel, author Caleb Carr approaches it with the rigor he puts into his historical non-fiction. The New York City of this time comes alive, sometimes with anecdotes that Carr is obviously eager to tell, but also with an atmosphere that feels distinctly different from the world today: The city is dirty, life is cheap, and high society is completely separated from it all. The book finds an excellent balance between feeling appropriate for its era and meeting our modern expectations of a crime thriller. Its uncompromising view of this culture makes for a pretty good hook at the opening, especially when combined with the gruesome murder. Either it seems less shocking after that, or I adjusted quickly, because the story never turned out to be as disturbing as I expected. It drew me in very effectively, though.

The historical setting and the exploration of a serial killer’s character are the selling points of the book. Other elements are less consistent, as if they weren’t Carr’s main focus. A subplot about conspiracies to stop the investigation appears sporadically, and narrator John Moore’s personal struggles (he’s a fallen member of a good family, now a bitter gambler and familiar with low society as well) rarely play a role after the opening chapters. That’s too bad, because they really do tie well with the book’s main themes: That conspiracy hints at fascinating insights into the way people viewed psychology, as well as the way powerful interests cynically manipulated the lower classes. A story entirely about the battle to suppress this investigation would have been worthwhile in itself.

I often get annoyed with historical novels, because they go to unrealistic lengths to bring their heroes in line with modern morals. The Alienist does that quite a bit: The protagonists treat everyone as equals regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and are also on the right side of history when it comes to science, psychology, and even techniques like fingerprinting. At least their background – especially for Laszlo Kreizler, the psychologist (“alienist”) of the title – helps to justify their forward-thinking ways. And my other pet peeve with historical fiction, that characters encounter or remark on things that just happen to be significant to modern-day readers, is alleviated by the conceit that Moore is writing this decades later, with some knowledge of how history progressed.

Overall, it’s a powerful and memorable book. I do wish the ending had been stronger: After all the careful and realistic build-up, it rushes through the final discoveries by giving Kreizler impossible insights on par with Sherlock Holmes. It has a realistic, if unsatisfying, lack of resolution once the killer is caught. Despite that, I wish that the logic and rigor of this case was the standard of crime fiction, and I’m glad to see the past brought alive so effectively. I approached this from a different point of view than most readers probably do, as I read mostly science fiction and fantasy. But I found here the sort of world-building that I like to see in those genres: Thorough and consistent without requiring lots of effort to take in. I wonder how well historical fiction could play the role I usually expect from fantasy if it were always executed like this.

Grade: B+

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  1. Love your book reviews! Definitely following.

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